Its name is intense, certainly. But Alive & Kicking Lobsters isn’t an underground lobster fight club, or a lobster taekwondo studio (sorry to disappoint). In fact, it isn’t much of anything—just a simple kitchen and fish freezer, tucked between two houses on a quiet Cambridge street, with picnic tables outside and rusting lobster traps for décor. What’s the appeal?
For one, lobsters are good for more than gladiatorial entertainment. They’re also pretty tasty. I set out for Alive & Kicking on a Friday afternoon to sample one of their famous lobster sandwiches. Not rolls, like the classic New England hot-dog-bun recipe. Sandwiches, as in regular ol’ sliced bread. According to Yelp, this is a critical distinction, and one that makes the trek to residential Cambridge worthwhile.
This is impressive, as A&K; is certainly off the beaten track, and also an exception to the general “Don’t eat seafood from shacks in sketchy parking lots” life rule. It’s easy to miss the first time around. I arrived around 3 p.m. after the lunch rush, and found little more than a bunch of empty picnic tables and a vaguely nautical aroma. The only other customer was the restaurant’s mascot, a stray cat whose diet of lobster scraps is probably better than 99 percent of all felines’—and Harvard students’—and had the smug attitude to prove it.
Inside, I placed my order. The menu was as bare-bones as the decor, although tragically more expensive ($16.95 for the famed lobster sandwich). I couldn’t find any explanation as to why the hell said sandwich is so superior, either.
This was a question for the experts. A&K; employee Adam J. Callahan fielded a few of my queries while my sandwich was being made. He’s been working at the restaurant for “about three and a half or four years,” and naturally loved lobster rolls when he started. Not anymore, though. “I think my first two months here,” he told me, “I had one almost every day.” What followed was a major burnout. Now, he’ll only eat A&K; lobster once a month.
It’s good lobster, though. “In the wintertime, it’s hard to get them locally,” he admitted. “But other than that, it’s all local stuff. We go out of Ipswich or the Cape; some guys go out of Boston. We’re friends with a bunch of fishermen, so we buy them off the boats.”
This locally sourced ethos can probably be traced back to A&K;’s founder, Louis Mastrangelo. Now in his 80s, he’s currently on vacation in Florida and wasn’t reachable for an interview. Mastrangelo started the business in 1996, selling lobsters out of the back of a trailer. Once he’d moved into a permanent location—the vacant lot behind his house—business started to pick up, thanks to glowing Yelp reviews and support from the local community.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, though. Last year, neighbors’ complaints (apparently, not everyone enjoys waking up to the scent of 400 pounds of simmering lobster) led to a zoning inquiry, which revealed that Mastrangelo had never officially obtained permission from the City of Cambridge to operate a retail business in a residential neighborhood. Without one, the restaurant was in danger of being shut down.
A&K;’s fans, though, weren’t ready to lose their beloved sandwiches just yet. A petition online to keep the restaurant open garnered over 2,000 signatures, and Mastrangelo was eventually granted a usage variance to continue operating. “It was huge,” said Callahan. “There’s people who have been coming here since it opened, buying [lobster].”
Which brings me to the long-awaited item itself. What more is there to say? It’s three ounces of lobster meat and mayonnaise on buttered toast. Food criticism meets its match in the lobster roll (sorry, sandwich), an item so relentlessly crowd-pleasing it defies all appraisals. Lobster is lobster, and unless you’re allergic to shellfish, three ounces of it is going to taste pretty damn good no matter the presentation.
Well, OK. Alive and Kicking’s take on the Boston classic is special enough to merit a little concrete praise. The lobster chunks are delicate and creamy, sandwiched between two slices of toasted scali bread (a form of Italian white found only in Boston) with little other ornamentation. The rare bad lobster rolls I’ve eaten have all tried too hard by including some unwelcome extra seasoning, like celery salt or Old Bay. A&K;, on the other hand, is following the same rules as it does for its physical space—keep things simple and unadorned, and trust in the tastes of their loyal customers.
And, of course, there’s the simple hipster street cred of being unique. “I think it just goes a lot better with the lobster, to be honest,” Callahan says. “Everyone does hot dog buns.”